Federal government approves bridging measures for Alberta foreign workers

The federal government has quietly thrown a lifeline to Alberta temporary foreign workers facing a looming April 1 deadline to leave the country.

In a letter sent to Conservative MPs and obtained by the Herald, federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney says a series of transitional measures have been put in place to “help address legitimate concerns that have been raised by employers in Alberta.”

The new measures will help temporary foreign workers transition to permanent residency if they have already applied under the Alberta Immigrant Nominee Program but risk having their work permits expire before their applications are processed.

Under the new policy, Alberta temporary foreign workers who are affected by the federally imposed April 1 deadline — the date on which any TFW who arrived in 2011 or earlier will see their contract expire — will be eligible for a one-time, one-year bridging work permit, as long as they’ve already applied for immigration and are in the queue waiting for word on their status.

In addition, the federal government will provide a one-time exemption to these workers that will keep them from being counted under rules imposed last June, which require employers to ensure no more than 10 per cent of their workforce is made up of low-wage TFWs. The exemption will mean employers can continue to seek approvals to bring in new TFWs while their existing workers pursue permanent immigration.

Neither the federal government nor the province made an official announcement about the changes, though Ogho Ikhalo — spokeswoman for the provincial ministry of Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour — said in an interview that discussions have been underway since last fall and the new measures took effect Feb. 1.

Ikhalo cautioned that the bridging measures are not going to be applicable to every TFW looking for a way to extend their stay in the province. However, she estimated that more than 1,000 of the 10,000 individuals currently waiting in Alberta’s provincial nomination queue could be eligible to participate.

“We want the TFWs who are currently in our province to have a stronger chance at permanent residency. We want them to be able to call Alberta home, so that employers can also utilize that workforce,” Ikhalo said. “So this is good news for us.”

Last week, provincial Jobs Minister Ric McIver confirmed that “several thousand” foreign workers currently living in Alberta could see their work permits expire on April 1, a date imposed in 2011 when the federal government first imposed a four-year limit on the length of time TFWs may work in Canada.

While some of those workers are eligible to seek permanent residency through the Alberta Immigrant Nominee Program, a glut of applications means current processing times range from 12 to 25 months. Applicants must have an active work permit to apply for permanent residency, but the lengthy wait times mean that many workers could find themselves still in the queue when their permits expire on April 1.

That’s causing significant frustration for employers, many of whom are fearful of losing some of their best and most experienced employees, said Richard Truscott, Alberta director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

“This is very much a looming issue for Alberta, with this April deadline coming up. Our members have been scrambling to find ways to keep these individuals,” Truscott said. “So we’re very happy to see these transitional measures implemented.”

Mark von Schellwitz, Western Canada vice-president for industry group Restaurants Canada, also praised the move.

“We do everything we can to hire Canadians first . . . But not everybody is cut out to work in the high-stress, high-pressure restaurant industry,” he said. “In many cases, these (TFWs) are workers who have worked here and established roots in Alberta communities. They’ll be very, very good Albertans, and it would be unfair to them to have their applications cut short because their work permit has expired.”

But TFW advocate Marco Luciano of Migrante Alberta said there is still too much uncertainty about what these changes will actually mean. He said he has questions about how many bridging permits will actually be available, and is concerned that a one-year extension won’t be enough considering that it could take up to two years to get an application through the Alberta Immigrant Nominee Program.

“We believe that there should not be any restrictions for all TFWs that have applied for AINP. These workers should be allowed to stay until they get the results of their application,” Luciano said. “They contributed to the economy of Alberta and have established their lives here. They should be allowed to stay.”

In his letter, Kenney says he’s confident the new measures will not “undermine” reforms to the TFW program instituted by the federal government in June. In addition to the cap on the number of low-wage foreign workers an employer can use, the reforms also limit access to foreign workers for employers in areas of high unemployment, and make the process of applying for temporary foreign workers more expensive.

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